The nationwide lockdown imposed by the Indian government to contain the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of migrant workers stranded in expensive metropolitan cities, with inadequate money, food, and accommodation.[i] Further, proposed government benefits also remain unavailable to most stranded workers; more than 90% did not receive promised rations from the government.[ii] In these desperate conditions, thousands of migrants have had to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their hometowns. The Modi government responded to this crisis, more than a month late, by providing for special trains that would ferry stranded migrants to their villages.[iii] However, the state of Karnataka decided to cancel all such train services, in a bid to retain its labour force—and engage them in construction work and industrial activities.[iv] After much pressure from the citizenry and civil society activists, the state government was finally compelled to resume train services.[v] The change in policy notwithstanding, it is extremely important to understand the constitutional issues with the former decision of the Karnataka government. Such analysis is crucial to remind ourselves of constitutional values that seem all but forgotten during this pandemic.
Prima facie, the policy of denying migrant workers the right to return home falls foul of Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution, which guarantees to citizens the right to move freely throughout the territory of India. Admittedly, this is not an absolute right and the State can make a law (or rely on an existing law) to impose reasonable restrictions on the enjoyment of this right, in the interests of the general public.[vi] Was there any law backing the Karnataka government’s decision? No legislation is cited in the letter written by the state government to the Indian Railways, requiring the cancellation of all trains.[vii]
Section 2A of the Epidemic Diseases Act authorizes state governments to pass any regulations that they might deem “necessary to prevent the outbreak or spread” of an epidemic disease. But that clearly was not the rationale underpinning the Karnataka government’s decision. In Ram Jawaya Kapur, the Supreme Court of India (SC) had observed that whenever executive action seeks to infringe on the private rights of citizens, it must be backed by legislative authority.[viii] In the absence of any legislation backing the Karnataka government’s action, the requirements of Article 19(5) are not met.
But even if the decision were backed by legislative authority, can it be said to be “in the interests of the general public”? This expression cannot be construed as having an indefinitely wide import, because then any restriction on the fundamental right of movement would be justified by invoking some form of public interest. That would have the effect of making the restriction fundamental and the right dispensable. Indian jurisprudence has consistently relied on the proportionality doctrine to determine whether an infringement on fundamental rights is justified. In Anuradha Bhasin, the Court observed that the legitimate goal must be of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom.[ix]
It is submitted that the goal of helping builders construct apartments and housing complexes—that are mostly occupied by the upper middle class and richer sections of society—is not sufficiently pressing to override fundamental freedoms of vulnerable migrant workers. Even if the consequence of these construction activities is an economic revival that benefits all sections of society, it is not permissible to infringe on the rights of the poor to secure such benefits. The Constitution seeks to protect the intrinsic dignity and autonomy of all individuals. It would be an absolute betrayal of our constitutional ethos to use stranded migrants workers as means to our economic ends.
Article 21 is perhaps the most expansively interpreted fundamental rights provision of the Indian Constitution. Textually, it affords protection to “life and personal liberty”. In Francis Coralie, the SC read “life” to include “the right to live with human dignity,” which further encompassed “adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter,” and facilities for “freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings”.[x] In Puttaswamy, the right to “make autonomous life choices” was read as an intrinsic part of the right to privacy, which in turn was traced to Article 21.[xi] In denying migrant workers the right to return to their hometowns, the Karnataka government has undermined their decisional autonomy, which is a crucial facet of their personal liberty. Coercing workers to stay in the city deprives them of the refuge of their homes and the safeguards of familial and community support structures. In essence, it robs them of a life with dignity.
Article 14 is based on an ‘equal treatment’ principle governing State action, and provides that the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law….” Simply put, it enjoins that the law must operate equally on all persons under like circumstances.[xii] In the present situation, while migrant labourers from all other states had the opportunity (at least on paper) to return to their native villages, stranded workers in Karnataka were denied this right. Measures have also been adopted to facilitate the return of Indians stuck abroad[xiii] and students stranded in different cities.[xiv] It is discriminatory to specifically deny workers in Karnataka the right to return home, while the same right was available to several other classes of stranded individuals.
India’s equality jurisprudence has traditionally been restrained by the formulaic doctrine of ‘reasonable classification’. However, with the recent judgments delivered in Navtej Johar[xv] and Joseph Shine,[xvi] the SC has evolved a more substantive vision of equality; one that shifted the focus from ‘reasonable classification’ to the idea of disadvantage. As Gautam Bhatia notes, “True equality – as we can intuitively sense – is about identifying disadvantage, about identifying the axes of disadvantage, and then working to remedy them.”[xvii]
The discrimination meted out to migrant workers in Karnataka, in the present case, further entrenches their position of disadvantage. Denying them foundational rights available to other similarly placed individuals falls foul of the ‘equal treatment’ principle embodied in Article 14.
The right against “forced labour” is provided under Article 23 of the Constitution. But how do we understand the term “forced”? Is it merely the presence of physical or legal compulsions? Does the payment of wages change the character of “forced” labour to consensual? In PUDR v. Union of India, the SC advanced a transformative vision of individual autonomy and dignity, in the context of Article 23.[xviii]
Dealing with the exploitation of contract labour hired to work on the Asian Games Village building project in Delhi, the PUDR Court held that all unwilling labour is forced labour, whether paid or not and is, therefore, prohibited. The Court refused to interpret the term “forced” in the ‘liberal’ sense of freedom from interference; rather the Court understood forced labour to exist wherever the choices that exist before a worker are not genuine choices at all. The basis of the Court’s judgment was that “any factor which deprives a person of a choice of alternatives and compels him to adopt one particular course of action may properly be regarded as ‘force’ and if labour or service is compelled as a result of such ‘force’, it would be ‘forced labour’.”[xix]
This brings us to the question of what choices were available to a migrant worker stranded in Karnataka, pursuant to the government’s decision of cancelling all train services? N. Manjunath Prasad, nodal officer for inter-state travel from Karnataka had said, “Once there is employment, normalcy will get established… so why go back then? Those who still want to go back can do so using their own vehicle.”[xx] So the gamut of choices could be reduced to the following three:
(i) They could stay in the state of Karnataka and work at the construction/industrial sites the government wanted them to.
(ii) They could stay in the state and choose not to work at all.
(ii) They could return to their hometowns in their own vehicles.
Choosing not to work at all is not a genuine option, since it entails starving. It is unclear if inter-state travel via private vehicles is permitted.[xxi] But even if it were, how is a migrant worker—who is anyway struggling to afford two meals a day—expected to hire a private vehicle and spend thousands of rupees to reach her hometown? The only genuine choice available to such a labourer was to work as per the government’s directions. It is evident that such a person would not be acting as a free agent with choice, rather would be coerced into offering their labour. The same falls within the bounds of “forced labour” which is proscribed by Article 23.
Most migrant labourers work as daily-wage workers, with no contractual obligations. However, the PUDR Court noted that it is an affront to “human dignity to compel a person to provide labour [against her will]” even if she is bound by a contract. The Court, in saying so, highlighted the power asymmetry and economic desperation that compels poor people into entering such contracts in the first place.
On 8 May 2020, 16 migrant workers—who were trying to walk back to their villages on foot—were run over by a goods train.[xxii] This incident is perhaps the greatest indictment of a political establishment that looks at the poor with apathy and disdain. The lockdown imposed to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable. Those with privilege enjoy job security and the safety of their houses, and can therefore work from home. Migrant workers, however, are left without food, shelter, and livelihood. But most of all, they are deprived of the most basic rights intrinsic to personhood—rights of dignity, autonomy, equality, and freedom from forced labour.
[i] Geeta Pandey, “Coronavirus in India: Desperate migrant workers trapped in lockdown” BBC (22 April 2020).
[ii] The Hindu Data Team, “96% migrant workers did not get rations from the government, 90% did not receive wages during lockdown: Survey” The Hindu (20 April 2020).
[iii] Yuthika Bhargava, “Railways to run ‘Shramik Special’ trains to move migrant workers, other stranded persons” The Hindu (1 May 2020).
[iv] Scroll Staff, “Karnataka cancels special trains for migrant workers after meeting with builders” Scroll (6 May 2020).
[v] Christin Mathew Philip, “Under Pressure, Karnataka government to resume train services for migrant workers from Friday” Times of India (7 May 2020).
[vi] The Constitution of India, Article 19(5).
[vii] Arun Dev, “K’taka Govt Cancels Trains for Migrants After Meet With Builders” The Quint (6 May 2020).
[viii] AIR 1955 SC 549
[ix] 2020 SCC OnLine SC 25
[x] (1981) 1 SCC 608
[xi] (2017) 10 SCC 1
[xii] M. Nagaraj v. Union of India (2006) 8 SCC 212
[xiii] Deepak Upadhyay, “Govt to facilitate return of Indian nationals stranded abroad” Live Mint (4 May 2020).
[xiv] PTI, “Nearly 500 students stranded in Kota return to Delhi” Economic Times (3 May 2020).
[xv] (2018) 10 SCC 1
[xvi] (2019) 3 SCC 39
[xvii] Gautam Bhatia, “The Citizenship (Amendment) Act Challenge: Three Ideas” Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog (21 Jan 2020).
[xviii] (1982) 3 SCC 235
[xix] Ibid., ¶14
[xx] Revathi Rajeevan, “Karnataka Cancels Trains for Migrant Workers After Yediyurappa Meets Builders, Says Work Will Resume” CNN-NEWS18 (6 May 2020).
[xxi] PTI, “Govt allows inter-state movement of stranded people with conditions” Times of India (29 April 2020).
[xxii] Shoumojit Banerjee and Ajeet Mahale, “16 migrant workers run over by goods train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra” The Hindu (8 May 2020)
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Parth Maniktala holds a Bachelors in English from Hans Raj College, Delhi University, where he also served as the President of the Debating Society. He has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. Currently, Parth is pursuing his L.L.B. Degree from Campus Law Center, University of Delhi, India.